Updated: Jan 28, 2020
First published 17 March 2007
Bali. New Year almost upon us. I worked out the other day that in a six month period I celebrate not one but six new years. Lucky girl. No doubt which is my favourite.
This is the second year I have spent New Year in on the Isle of the Gods. Of all the ceremonies I have experienced around the world none have ever touched me in the way this one does. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.
Yesterday was Melasti, the first of the New Year ceremonies that culminate with Nyepi Day, falling this year on March 19.
Melasti ... the day that the symbols of all the gods in Bali are taken to the sea and cleansed. Every god, from every temple. Almost too many to count. So many that each village is given the time they are to set off for the sea in order to minimise chaos on the roads. In times gone past the gods and all the islanders would walk from village to ocean. Last year the gods from my village were carried; we went by car. This year gods and humans progressed to the beach in four-wheeled or two-wheeled motorised chariots. Embracing modernity; Balinese pragmatism to the fore once more.
There is something very special sitting on the beach with a couple of thousand other people. No matter the weather a party atmosphere, threaded through with ceremony and spirituality, pervades the air. We chatter and gossip; eat and drink. And most importantly, when the time is right, we pray.
And that time comes after all the symbols of the gods have been placed in their respective places on bamboo stands next to temporary temples. They are carried across the sands to the cadence of drums and gongs, accompanied by magnificent Barongs. Priests chant and pray, the familiar sound of their bells ringing through the voices of those gathered before them. A duck is ‘sacrificed’ to the spirits of the sea.
This year our duck made a break for it. Laughter rippled through the crowds as the duck swam its way to freedom. Off came the sarongs and shirts of a dozen muscled young men and into the surf they went, swimming valiantly in an attempt to catch the duck. All thought of prayer was momentarily forgotten as we rose to our feet and cheered. For the duck? For its pursuers? Who knows? Who cares? We laughed and clapped as through the surf men and bird swam. An incoming breaker and the duck did what they do best - duck dived - under the wave and out of sight. Hot on his webbed feet was one young guy. Seconds stretched into eternity as we waited for them both to surface. An almighty cheer! He had the bird! But not for long. A twist of its glistening green body and the duck was gone again.
Knowing they were defeated the young men returned to shore to loud applause. They huddled under the bruised purple sky, shivering in the wind. We, in the meanwhile kept our eye on the duck. Quite possibly a surfer in a previous life because as a beautiful left hand break approached the shore the duck turned to face land and effortlessly surfed its way to the beach. Well, almost to the beach. Just when it was within potential catching distance it swung round and headed back out towards the island of Nusa Penida. The last we saw it was way out to sea bobbing near a colourful outrigger boat. Ancient spirituality woven with spontaneous humour. Such a joy.
As we settled so a single bell rang out through the air and we began to pray, guided by the priest. The potency of the collective prayers and positive intent of several thousand people is breath-taking, our prayers given on the fragrant petals of white, pink, blue and green flowers and carried up into the cosmos on the wings of a cool, incense-infused wind. Pure poetry.
We collected sand and sea water for the upcoming ceremony of Ogo Ogo and then began to eat. This is always the way. Gather, gossip, nibble on snacks, kids play, everyone prays, and all eat once again. Sacrificed chicken, parcels of sticky rice, crunchy raw cucumber and hot chilli sauce eaten off woven coconut frond ‘plates’ under a sky growing darker with each minute.
As the first raindrops began to fall so the symbols of the gods, accompanied by penjors and umbrellas, to the sound of gongs and drums, were carried back across the beach, up through the rice fields and back to the trucks parked on the main road, followed by a long line of colourfully-dressed laughing people.
Such a joy, such a privilege to be a part of to be so unconditionally welcomed and embraced.
The world has a lot to learn from the Balinese. Long may their spirituality and culture survive.